PARIS–More than a week after France’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign was launched, only a few thousand people in the entire country have received their first injection, with President Emmanuel Macron’s vaccination strategy widely criticized for being flawed, too slow, and pandering to anti-vaxxers.
Only 516 people in France had received their first vaccine dose as of Jan. 1, according to the independent website Covid Tracker, compared with 114,000 in Italy, 238,000 in Germany and more than one million people in the U.K. That figure is now reportedly “over 5,000”, but the Ministry of Health has yet to confirm the exact number. If the French vaccine rollout’s objective of one million vaccinations by the end of January is to be reached, 36,000 jabs must be carried out each day.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, French doctors have blasted the country’s approach to the vaccine rollout, singling out “misjudged” policy decisions, a lack of information communicated to health workers, and a lack of preparation.
The French strategy initially was to prioritize vulnerable groups in retirement homes, allowing for a two-week process to carry out each vaccination, including a doctor’s consultation, the patient’s approval and the injection itself. However, a slow take-up and reports of large numbers of care home patients refusing the vaccine have forced a change of plan.
As of Monday, that recommended time period for vaccination has been reduced to one week and the focus has shifted, with doctors, nurses and carers over the age of 50 now able to volunteer to have a vaccination immediately. City vaccination centers are expected to open before the beginning of February.
Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, an infection specialist at Paris’s Bichat hospital, criticized the decision to begin vaccination in retirement homes. “It was too complicated, it shouldn't have begun there,” he said. “If anything the [slow pace of the] strategy has encouraged anti-vaxxers. Medically and scientifically, there is no reason for this to be done slowly. On the contrary, it should be done as quickly as possible.”
“At this pace it would take 3,000 years to reach herd immunity,” said Professor Bruno Megarbane, head of the medical and toxicological intensive care unit at Lariboisière Hospital in Paris. “But for the official authorities, there hasn't been a delay in the vaccine rollout. For them, this rollout corresponds to the official vaccination strategy—even if observers like me say there has been a delay. Especially when vaccine doses are now uselessly sitting in freezers, not being used.”
Megarbane is “confident” that the speed of vaccinations will increase, but is concerned about the lack of information being shared with hospitals. “We don't have any information,” he added. “We don't know when vaccination will begin, who can get vaccinated, or who will be allowed to carry out vaccinations.”
Some are concerned about the longer-term implications of France’s sluggish start. Dr. Arnaud Fontanet, epidemiologist and member of the Scientific Council, estimates that 12 percent of French people have caught COVID-19 to date but that “the virus will only stop circulating epidemically” when at least half of the population have been immunized.
“My worry is not so much about the first few weeks,” he added. “My concern is that we are facing a worldwide demand for these vaccines. In three months, will we have sufficient doses for Europe and the rest of the world.”
On Monday the French government will launch a citizens’ committee formed of 35 randomly-selected, non-expert French people to help decide the country’s vaccine strategy. Made up of representatives of different demographics such as age, gender, region, level of qualification and socio-professional category, the committee is intended to "nourish the executive and legislative power" of the vaccination campaign and “to take into account their responses” .
In the middle of an unprecedented health crisis, however, the creation of a non-expert group to advise on policy has led to puzzlement.
“The French are vaccine sceptics despite our great elders like Pasteur,” said Emmanuel Andrès, head of the internal medicine department of Strasbourg’s University Hospitals and president of the medical commission establishment. “Personally, I don't really see how a citizens' committee could be useful in defining French vaccination policy.”
Mixed messages from the government over the plans haven’t helped matters. On Sunday the minister of transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, told BFM-TV that the goal was to “vaccinate 26 million people by the summer”, contradicting the target of 15 million set out by Prime Minister Jean Castex before parliament in December. Gabriel Attal, the government spokesperson, was then forced to clarify that the “priority objective” is 15 million by the summer.
In comments leaked to the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Macron complained that the government’s vax program has all the urgency of a “family stroll” and that “the government has failed to grasp the seriousness of the moment”. The report cited a senior minister source claiming that health authorities incapable of organizing mass vaccination were “presenting a constraint as a strategy”.
Macron has also come under withering criticism in the national media for this latest misstep. “While America, Israel, Great Britain, Germany gallop, France advances at the speed of the snail. Champion in restrictions, gold medal in certificates, she is last in solutions,” read an editorial in Le Figaro, a daily newspaper.
The French government has received 560,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and from Wednesday, it expects to receive another 500,000. But the first two deliveries of vaccines at the end of December 2020—first 60,000, then 500,000 doses—were only sent to 40 hospitals, out of the hundred reference centers selected by the state.
On top of the slow vaccine rollout, Macron is under pressure for failures in public education that put anti-vaxxer sentiment at nearly 60 percent and the fact that the French Sanofi vaccine will be delayed until the end of 2021 while Germany’s Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine and the U.K.’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have already been deployed.
An Odoxa poll for Le Figaro, which was published on Sunday but carried out on Dec. 22 and 23, found that the majority of the population is still reluctant to be vaccinated, with a refusal rate of 58 per cent. That's an increase of 8 points compared to the previous month, when the first vaccines were given the green light.
But in France, the arrival of the British variant of SARS-CoV-2, suspected of being more contagious, has raised concerns. The director general of health, Jérôme Salomon, said that “the trend is already worrying.” Even though the impact of the festive period is not yet known, he said: “We have had a gradual increase since the beginning of December”.
Currently, 24,780 patients are hospitalized in France because of COVID-19, including 2,665 in intensive care, according to data from Public Health France. A total of 65,037 people have died since the beginning of the pandemic.